I sometimes tell people I have a four-year degree in accepting criticism. My diploma doesn’t say that in so many words, but I credit my fine arts degree with my ability to process feedback on my creative work.
Critique can be demoralizing, especially when we’ve poured our heart and soul — and countless hours — into a project only to be told it’s still miles from the finish line. However, none of my projects would be where they are today without honest critique.
Not all critique is created equal. Giving feedback is a skill developed over time. When you find a strong reader who gives intelligent, tough-love critiques of your early drafts, don’t let them go.
Wondering which pieces of reader feedback you should keep and which you should toss? Here are a few tips.
What to Use
Constructive feedback can be painful. It reveals how much work we still need to do on a manuscript. Sometimes it even compels us to cut a favorite scene. However, discomfort is no reason to throw out valuable feedback. If you hear something from this list, take heed.
All variations on “Great writing, no emotional connection”
Have you ever received a rejection letter that praised your excellent writing and compelling premise, only to conclude with “unfortunately, I didn’t form a strong enough connection with [your protagonist]?” Let me tell you, it hurts.
Readers need to make an emotional connection to your protagonist as soon as your book opens. This, not your plot, will give them a reason to care about your story. If you hear this critique from your readers, you need to fix it.
Like writers, critique partners, agents, and editors are fallible humans with biases and personal preferences. Some of the feedback you receive won’t be right for your manuscript — and that’s okay.
You can probably ignore a single piece of feedback that feels off-base. However, if two people say the same thing, give it more credence. If you hear similar feedback from three people, you definitely need to change something.
Critique of your favorite scenes, characters, and plot elements
For every favorite scene I’ve written, I’ve either had to revise it beyond recognition or delete it altogether. The phrase “kill your darlings” says less about those darlings than it does about us: we lack objectivity when we get too attached. Listen carefully to critique of your favorite passages. They’re probably in your blind spot.
What to Toss
It’s hard to evaluate constructive criticism. If it makes us uncomfortable or upset, that can be a good sign or a bad sign. You’ll develop an instinct for processing feedback over time. In general, though, watch out for these red flags:
Personal preference critiques
We all have biases and personal preferences that inform our tastes. I’ve yet to find a novel with universally excellent Goodreads reviews. A skilled critiquer will know how to separate their preferences from an objective evaluation of the writing. Seek that out and take opinion- or taste-based feedback with a grain of salt.
A good example of this? Complaints that your story focuses too much on the characters’ emotions and personal journeys — when you’re writing women’s fiction. Watch out for suggestions that you upend well-established tropes and norms in genre fiction. If a beta reader doesn’t care for your genre, that may color their feedback.
Critique that obviously comes from the reader’s issues, not the story’s
Some of us — myself included — write about touchy subjects. If you do this you’re bound to hit the wrong nerve with someone. Certain readers might have a visceral reaction to your content. Their experience and feelings are valid, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cater to them. Know your audience and stay true to your message.
That said, fiction gives us a powerful tool to increase our readers’ empathy. If you include sensitive subject matter, do it justice. Engage beta readers who can give you the feedback you need.
Vague, non-actionable feedback
One of my art school professors forbade us from using phrases like “it’s good” or “I like it” in critiques. I don’t ban them from my fiction critique group, but our guidelines do insist critiquers pair those phrases with specific feedback.
Subjective responses about whether a reader liked your work or thought it was good are meaningless in the revision phase. If someone tells you they didn’t like your story but can’t tell you anything that would’ve made it better, thank them for their time and move on.